Your Mother’s Smile Affects Your Breath: Oral Health and Genetics

You are probably scratching your head at the title of this post.

How can your mother’s smile actually affect your breath? In more ways than you can probably imagine. Genetics have a pesky way of showing up in our everyday lives.

When it comes to your oral health, your genes control a lot more than you may think. 

Usually when people think of “genetics” or “genes,” flashbacks to a high school biology class or conversations around eye color, body type, or even skin tone may abound. No one considers the health of their mouth as having a genetic component, at least not straightaway.

Like anything else we encounter in life, there are a number of factors to consider when it comes to anything health-related. Using terms like genes, genetics, and heredity can make any topic sound fixed, or that it is unchangeable. Despite what your chromosomes say (sometimes), everything is not set in stone. 

Genetics 101

Before we can dive into the idea of oral health and genetics, maybe we need to break it all down into bite-sized chunks. Don’t worry, we will make this as painless as possible and try to avoid some of those high school bio class flashbacks. 

The Basics

Genetics explores questions of the heritability and variety in heritability of characteristics. Basically, what characteristics did you get from your parents? How is that different from the characteristics they received from their parents? And what is the likelihood your children will or won’t get that specific characteristic from you?

The Science

A human has 23 pairs of chromosomes in every cell of their body, except the sex cells; they only have 23 total chromosomes. Genes are located on different areas of chromosomes, so one chromosome in a pair has thousands of gene sequences inherited from one parent; the other chromosome in the pair has thousands of gene sequences inherited from the other parent.

Factors such as the environment, the type of cell the chromosomes are in, and time can dictate the expression of certain genes or gene sequences. 

An autosomal gene can be dominant or recessive. A dominant trait is expressed using only one copy of the gene, if it is available in that organism. A recessive trait is expressed when copies of the gene from both parents are available in the organism. Sex-linked traits are expressed when the gene is present on the X or Y chromosome. Only males can inherit Y-linked traits. 

Defects can affect many genes on a chromosome. In these instances, physical, developmental, and intellectual deformities may occur. Complex traits are usually expressed if the environment allows for it.1 An example of this would be diabetes. An individual may have a genetic predisposition for diabetes, but if they live a healthy lifestyle (their environment), they may never “express” diabetes. On the other hand, if the individual has a poor diet, diabetes may be diagnosed in the individual. 

Oral Health

When it comes to caring for our oral health, dental caries (tooth decay/cavities) and periodontitis (gum disease) are at the forefront of our minds. We brush our teeth, floss, visit a dentist regularly, and engage with an orthodontist when we are looking to have straighter teeth. We decide on toothpastes that whiten and brighten our smiles and a mouthwash that freshens our breath. All of these decisions and routines are attempts to prevent tooth decay and gum disease, in addition to having an aesthetically pleasing smile. 

Periodontal disease is caused by plaque build-up on the teeth that goes unaddressed. Plaque is a biofilm that forms on the teeth between brushing. The plaque is full of bacteria. When not treated through brushing, plaque affects the teeth and gums causing tooth decay and gum disease. Also, when plaque is not removed from the teeth, it gets hard and becomes tartar.2 

Some people may find it difficult to control their breath and others struggle with sensitive teeth, despite their greatest efforts. When it is difficult to rein in oral health, one must question overall health and genetics. 

Tooth decay happens when the naturally occurring bacteria of the mouth turns carbohydrates that you eat into acids. These acids break down the structure just below the enamel. If this is left untreated, or you have a poor oral hygiene regimen, the acids may further damage the enamel, causing cavities.3

It’s All in the Genes

The aim of a large-scale international study published in June 2019 was to identify genes involved in the development of dental caries and periodontitis. 47 genes were linked to dental caries. These included genes responsible for saliva quality and others that were linked to tooth number and quality. While these seemed to be direct links, it was also found that there are genetic associations between dental caries and other health characteristics, such as smoking and personality traits.4

Enamel defects, poor tooth development, and disfigurement of the oral cavity can be the result of genetics. 

Oral Health Conditions Linked to Genetics 

  • Amelogenesis imperfecta. This condition causes small and/or discolored teeth. It may also affect the quality of the enamel, causing teeth to break and wear easily. 
  • Dentinogenesis imperfecta. Dentinogenesis imperfecta can cause teeth to appear yellow-brown or blue-gray and translucent. It affects the dentin under the enamel causing it to become soft, which, in turn, can cause the enamel to break.
  • Ectodermal dysplasia. In ectodermal dysplasia, the individual may be missing a great number of teeth. The teeth that are present may take on a conical shape. 
  • Dentinal dysplasia. Teeth are connected to the jaw bone by their roots. In the case of dentinal dysplasia, the roots of the teeth do not form, causing early-onset tooth loss.
  • Hypophosphatasia. Hypophosphatasia is a disorder where the minerals necessary for strong bones and teeth are not able to deposit during development. This causes the cementum (the outer covering of the tooth root) to not properly anchor to the jaw bone. This results in premature tooth loss in childhood. 
  • Vitamin D-resistant rickets. This condition causes unexplained infection at the root of the teeth. The consequences of the infection are openings in the tooth enamel that extend to the dental pulp where nerves and blood vessels are found.5 

Nature vs. Nurture?

Genetics definitely play a role in oral health, however, we would be amiss if we did not address the role the environment plays when it comes to your mouth. The environmental factor determines how the genetic components will express themselves. While it seems that susceptibility for disease is genetic, the expression of the dis-ease is more environmental.

The way you physically care for your mouth, in combination with genetics, determine your overall oral health.6 

Brushing your teeth and tongue at least twice a day, flossing once a day, and attending regular dentist visits and cleanings can offset some of the genetic dispositions.2 If you are concerned with your oral health, be sure to reach out to Old Town Smiles today to learn more about what you can do to protect your smile.

The Verdict

Your mother’s smile may not directly impact your breath, but whatever your mother (and your father) genetically passed down to you, just might. Outside of obvious craniofacial and dental abnormalities, depending on your unique presentation and concerns, oral health can be improved or maintained through appropriate hygiene and health regimens. Genetics cannot be changed, however, there are steps you can take to ensure the health of your mouth.

Taking care of your oral health is a stepping stone in taking care of your overall health.

The condition of your breath, teeth, tongue, gums, and jaw can directly impact your cardiovascular, endocrine, immune, and reproductive systems. By being aware of what’s going on in your mouth, your doctor can become aware of what is happening in other parts of your body. HIV, diabetes, hepatitis, and even stress can be detected through saliva.7 

Dr. Amhed is available to treat your oral health needs. From teeth whitening and cleaning to a full mouth reconstruction, improving your smile and your relationship with your oral health is our ultimate goal. We will take time to discuss how your overall health may be affected by oral health  symptoms you may be experiencing. Take inventory of how you are caring for your mouth and you may be surprised to know that you have more control than you think over your oral health. If you are ready to address your concerns and take control of your genetics, contact us today!

Additional Information

  1. Department of Scientific Information, ADA Science Institute. (2019). Genetics and Oral Health. Retrieved from  https://www.ada.org/en/member-center/oral-health-topics/genetics-and-oral-health
  2. Colgate-Palmolive Company. (2019). What is Periodontal Disease?. Retrieved from https://www.colgateprofessional.com/education/patient-education/topics/plaque-and-gingivitis/what-is-periodontal-disease 
  3. Colgate-Palmolive Company. (2019). Dental Caries (Cavities). Retrieved from https://www.colgateprofessional.com/education/patient-education/topics/caries/dental-caries 
  4. National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. (2019). Genes Are Key to Oral Health & Beyond. Retrieved from https://www.nidcr.nih.gov/news-events/genes-are-key-oral-health-beyond
  5. Thompson, L. (2016). You Asked: Are my bad teeth genetic? Retrieved from https://vitalrecord.tamhsc.edu/bad-teeth/
  6. Hart, T. C., Marazita, M. L., & Wright, J. T. (2000). The Impact of Molecular Genetics on Oral Health Paradigms. Critical Reviews in Oral Biology & Medicine, 11(1), 26-56. doi: 10.1177/10454411000110010201
  7. Colgate-Palmolive Company. (2019). Oral Health and Overall Health: Why a healthy mouth is good for your body. Retrieved from https://www.colgateprofessional.com/education/patient-education/topics/systemic/why-a-healthy-mouth-is-good-for-your-body
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